Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Housemartins 'Caravan Of Love'

Chart Peak: 1 (1 week)

Charted at No. 23 on 2nd December 1986, had flown to No.1 by 16th December. It was their third consecutive Top 20 single of the year.
There are quite a few unusual things about this single, none of which are really accounted for in the sleeve note. I suppose they were too busy congratulating themselves on that "flown" joke. It's chiefly notable as the UK's second and - to date - last a cappela Number One single, after the Flying Pickets version of 'Only You'; interesting to note with hindsight that they were so close together in time, and that both were cover versions released in the winter. Indeed, 'Caravan Of Love' was only a week shy of being a Christmas chart topper (as previously mentioned, it had to play second fiddle to the late Jackie Wilson), which makes it an odd record to be writing about during the biggest heatwave for several years.

Of course, the big difference between the Housemartins and the Flying Pickets is that the latter were stylistically consistent, whereas the other Housemartins hits were all self-penned and featured instruments. They weren't strangers to unaccompanied singing though, having occasionally appeared as their own support act under the pseudonym Fish City Five and released a version of 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' on the CD version of their debut album. Had this stayed on top for that extra week it would have been the first religiously-themed Christmas Number One since 1978, though in the event the nation had to wait another four years for Cliff Richard's 'Saviour's Day'. This too is a slight diversion for the band who, unlike Cliff, were not known to be truly religious; though Paul Heaton seems not to have been as fiercely anti-clerical as he later became, his stated aim in the use of Christian imagery was to "take religion away from the right-wing" and reflect the Christian Socialist tradition he obviously felt some sympathy with. He and the rest of the band evidently had a genuine love of gospel music too. 'Caravan Of Love' was originally written and recorded by Isley Jasper Isley, a spin-off group of the members who'd joined the Isley Brothers in the Seventies, after their Motown hits but in time for their groundbreaking funk-rock success: Marvin and Ernie Isley and their brother-in-law Chris Jasper. During their tenure with the group, the Isleys became masters of the cross-genre cover version so it's somehow fitting that the most famous song written by those members went the other way. As sung by Chris Jasper it's a lilting call to evangelisation swamped in treacly 80s production, but the Housemartins obviously strip it down considerably and draw attention to the lyric and Heaton's vocal (easy to forget how good a singer he can be). Presumably buying into the song more as an anthem of togetherness and co-operation rather than one about God, they even sneak in a bit of humour during the call-and-response fade, appearing to sing "He's coming/run for it".

Now, I might be slightly biased here because if there are two acts I particularly associate with my childhood, it's the Housemartins and the Isley Brothers. A Telstar-label Isleys compilation (which featured 'Caravan of Love' as one of  two Isley Jasper Isley tracks) was a regular on my Dad's car stereo back then, and the songs became so familiar to me that I was actually surprised when I grew up and met other people who didn't know them all or even hadn't heard of the Isley Brothers at all. So a combination of the two bands was bound to press all my buttons and indeed it does, as well as the nostalgia I have about hearing this song itself; I also remember the video, which is just as well since it seems to be blocked to UK viewers online. The TotP performance I've linked to up there is notable not only for the band showing their usual glamorous dress sense but also for the fact that the camera operator seems to trip over at about the three-minute mark and they left it in. Anyway, even if the song isn't really as great as I think it is, it's certainly highly distinctive, very different from the rest of what was high in the chart at this time and the rest of the album. That might be one reason why it works for me where the Blow Monkeys don't.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 10
Available on: True Acoustic (3CD Set)

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